Over the last several months, Caltrain ridership, which had increased consistently for years, has shown a dip. Caltrain’s payment data suggests that the most recent fare increases may be contributing to the ridership drop.
At the last board meeting in April, Caltrain’s Chief Operating Officer presented the analysis at the request of the board. Caltrain average weekday ridership has declined since the beginning of the year. In February 2019, average weekday ridership decreased 3.6 percent over the same month in the previous year, and in March ridership decreased 1.7% in March over the previous year.
Last July, Caltrain increased the price of its monthly pass from 14 to 15 days, following a decision made the previous year by the board: Following the change, customers shifted from monthly pass and other multi-ride fares to one-way tickets and day passes. Then, Bay Area experienced an exceptionally rainy winter in 2018/19.
Bouchard reported that the fare increase may have driven the ridership drop, exacerbated by the weather: “With changes in ticket sales trends, it is very likely that the Caltrain ridership has become more sensitive to the weather condition than it was before. It is possible that the increased use of one-way tickets could have potentially allowed passengers to opt out of traveling on Caltrain during inclement weather as opposed to having a captured ridership pool.” Caltrain will be doing additional analysis to investigate the causes of the ridership drop.
As Caltrain considers budgets for the next few years before electrification, we hope they will consider the risk that fare increases might depress ridership further. Until recently, fare increases had little impact on ridership. The average income of a Caltrain rider is about $130,000, and many price-sensitive riders may have already been priced out of the service. The recent trends suggest that Caltrain may no longer be able to raise more money from riders without reducing its ridership and revenue. And Caltrain’s recent polling results suggest that the perception that Caltrain is unaffordable may be a risk for voters in supporting a tax for stable funding.